One town over from us is a small amusement park, with a mini golf course, a driving range, a racetrack and two arcades (one for regular video games, one for redemption for prizes).  It’s never particularly crowded, but is always a nice way to spend an afternoon or a good place to throw a birthday party for one of the kids.

Once a summer, the carnival comes to town. The mall parking lot is transformed: a fence is erected, tents go up, and amusement rides are unfolded from trucks. Soon the smell of sausages, fried dough and caramel apples fills the air. For three nights the carnival is mobbed. We make sure to make it there at least one night, and we will often run into old friends that we haven’t seen for a while.

The first MROCS, or market research online communities, were definitely in the amusement park category. They were permanent fixtures, intended to be a resource throughout the year for organizations to gather feedback from customers and prospects. As Brad Bortner of Forrester wrote in an independent report, “MROCs are fundamentally changing the cost structure of qualitative research from a variable-cost, per-project basis to a fixed-cost ‘all you can eat’ basis.” And, yes, a place to have fun – learning firsthand from customers about new opportunities is exciting and energizing.

Some organizations, though, such as ABC Studios and General Mills, have found themselves struggling to maintain MROCs that aren’t needed year round, as both revealed in separate presentations at the MRA First Outlook Conference last November. For the ABC Studios Advisory Panel, TV shows are not in production year round; during the downtime, events are scheduled in the community to keep members interested and logging in, so that they will be there when real research needs to be conducted. For General Mills, its online communities work best in the discovery process of innovation, which makes for an intermittent need for smaller, temporary communities.

As a result, there is new and emerging interest in MROCs as carnivals – thrown up quickly for a short time. General Mills has moved from a standing community to communities built to last about eight weeks with 30 to 50 participants. IBM’s communities are even more temporary: in fact, much like the carnival near my house, IBM Innovation Jams are only around for three days at a time.

IBM packs a lot into that three days. First, they market the jam extensively to the target audience (employees, resellers, customers) in advance, to build a crowd that will be pushing to get in. Unlike General Mills, which focuses on building participant intimacy, IBM aims for quantity – their largest innovation jam, in 2006, had over 150,000 participants from 104 countries and 67 companies. To harness all these contributors, idea generation is given a clear and narrow focus: for instance, redefining a company’s core values or generating ideas for urban sustainability. The community is staffed with moderators to facilitate discussion, with subject-matter experts to keep conversations going, and with analysts to provide real-time data crunching about what is being discussed. As a result of the 2006 Innovation Jam, IBM invested $100 million in 10 new business areas that emerged from the community.

Both standing MROCs and temporary MROCs can provide great insights. ABC Studios is keeping its community as a permanent resource and takes in stride the added work necessary to keep it thriving during slow times. General Mills has launched over 22 temporary communities, each to meet quite focused needs.

The amusement park and the carnival are great places to visit. And both can be good models for the MROC.